A Major American City Behind Bars
The United States locks up more people than any other country. One out of every one hundred people are incarcerated. Prison is now no longer an experience that is distant and unfamiliar, it is something that is frequently encountered. Our prison systems have grown since the 1970s, the incarceration rate in 1972 was quadrupled in 2012. Additionally, since 1972, the three levels of U.S. government expanded the U.S. prison population by a whopping 1.9 million. Today, the American criminal justice system contains more than 2.3 million people. That means that the penal system has a population that is comparable to the size of Chicago. We have a major American city behind bars, and this can be accredited to a major shift in crime policy.
The 1970s are seen as this turning point in our prison populations, there is a clear pivot in policy and attitude regarding criminal treatment. This new philosophy in policy endorsed mandatory minimums, supported sentencing guidelines and rubrics, and promoted the abolition of discretionary release. Generally, there was a common belief that the government needed to be “tougher” on criminals. Criminals have historically been associated with ethnic minorities and poor neighborhoods. Consequently, these groups of people are now those who are most affected to mass incarceration. These laws constituted what groups of people and what communities are considered dangerous, crime ridden, and ultimately criminal. These laws forge a pattern of disregard for rehabilitation, and ultimately propel a cycle of debt and instability among the large prison population and inner-city neighborhoods.
Wisconsin has chronic problems with incarceration, specifically the incarceration of African American men. This is not a new phenomenon, since the 1970s when African Americans only made up 3% of the state’s population they accounted for close to 30% of the state’s prison population. This disproportionate incarceration rate set precedent for systemic incarceration of African American males that still continues today, especially in the Milwaukee area. About one in eight African American males have served time in some sort of state correctional facility. However, the most recent pivot in the rise of incarceration in Milwaukee occurred between 2000 and 2008, when mandatory minimums were employed as a means for handling criminal cases. The mandatory minimums allowed prison populations to triple, and two thirds of these men come from the six poorest zip codes in Milwaukee. Zip code 53206 is the poorest in Milwaukee, with 35% of its population below the poverty line. 53206 is also known for its staggering incarceration rate within its neighborhoods, 62% of adult African American males have been or currently are incarcerated. This is not just the zip code that incarcerates the most African American males in Milwaukee or Wisconsin, this is the highest rate of any zip code in the United States.
There is a clear parallel between high incarceration rates and impoverished neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Incarceration taxes a working-class population thus causes economic instability. Even after coming home from prison, ex-convicts discover employment prospects are few and far between. The mark of a criminal record can account for a decline in employment rates among African American men between the ages of 25-34. This is part of why many ex-convicts become reoffenders. Research has demonstrated that those who can get jobs are less likely to return to prison, however those who cannot end up as part of the incarceration cycle. Around 700,000 inmates are released from prison each year, and about two thirds of those released will reoffend in three years. This is where the lack of rehabilitation in policy comes into play. When federal, state, or local governments do not see the incarceration as an opportunity for rehabilitation and integration back into society, they allow those who are incarcerated to just churn and burn in the cycle.
The state of Wisconsin spends close to $1.5 billion each year on incarceration and correctional facilities and Milwaukee County state prisons spend about $512,000 a day to incarcerate African American men. These funds would be better used if the state and local governments tried to establish employment opportunities for ex-convicts, that way they can generate money into their own communities. Policy has to change, and there has to be an emphasis on rehabilitation. Ex-convicts are not equipped with the resources to be successful when they are released, and until this issue is addressed incarceration will continue to be rampant. Milwaukee’s trends in incarceration support a culture of embedded racism that impedes the economic stability and success of African American neighborhoods. Milwaukee cannot truly prosper until its disproportionate incarceration rates are addressed.
Pager, Devah. The Mark of a Criminal Record. PDF. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003.
Pawasarat, John and Quinn, Lois M., “Wisconsin’s Mass Incarceration of African American Males, Summary” (2014). ETI Publications.Paper 10.
"Read "The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences" at NAP.edu." National Academies Press: OpenBook. Accessed August 01, 2018. https://www.nap.edu/read/18613/chapter/4.
"Prison Price Tag: The High Cost of Wisconsin's Corrections Policies." Wisconsin Budget Project. March 29, 2017. Accessed August 01, 2018. http://www.wisconsinbudgetproject.org/prison-price-tag-the-high-cost-of-wisconsins-corrections-policies.
Tahmincioglu, Eve. "Unable to Get Jobs, Freed Inmates Return to Jail." NBCNews.com. February 17, 2010. Accessed August 01, 2018. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/35263313/ns/business-careers/t/unable-get-jobs-freed-inmates-return-jail/#.W2H7pi2ZO8U.
"Read "The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences" at NAP.edu." National Academies Press: OpenBook. Accessed August 01, 2018. https://www.nap.edu/read/18613/chapter/6#105.
Lee, Michelle Ye Hee. "Yes, U.S. Locks People up at a Higher Rate than Any Other Country." The Washington Post. July 07, 2015. Accessed August 01, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/07/yes-u-s-locks-people-up-at-a-higher-rate-than-any-other-country/?utm_term=.541e60c554d5.
See also, "Creating Home after Incarceration," by Nicole Robinson, Milan Outlaw, Godson Mollel, BLC Field School 2014."
Hear the WUWM interview with Reginald Jackson on on Milwaukee Segregation & America's Black Holocaust Museum
Image courtesy of John Pawasarat and Lois M. Quinn
Image courtesy of John Pawasarat and Lois M. Quinn